When is disc fusion a good thing?
Disc fusion has been around for more than 20 years now. And with advances in minimally invasive surgery, stem cell therapies, and better understandings of orthopedic structure, doctors are recommending disc fusion more frequently.
First, what is disc fusion?
Disc fusion is a process for encouraging two adjacent discs to grow together and act as one. The logic is that if you and your doctor can pinpoint the cause of your pain to movement between two particular vertebrae, then arresting that movement can potentially eliminate the pain. A bone graft is placed in the space between the two vertebrae and encouraged to grow, thereby fusing them together. There are a few titanium devices your doctor may recommend such as support plates or a “cage” to contain the bone graft material.
Disc fusions can be done at any level on the spine from lower back to the neck. Lumbar fusions are the most common. About 80 percent of all fusion surgeries address problems in the L4-L5 space.
“Disc fusions can be a great way of reducing or eliminating pain and restoring mobility – given the right circumstances,” said Dr. Solomon Kamson, founder of the Spine Institute Northwest in Bothell, Washington. “We’ve had great success with fusions and can help you understand your situation and your options.”
As you research your options, here are a few things to keep in mind.
What are the conditions under which a doctor will recommend disc fusion?
The procedure has worked best for:
- Patients who can, with the help of their doctor, pinpoint the source of the pain to the area between two specific vertebrae
- Patients who’ve experienced severe spinal trauma
- Patients who’ve had surgery to remove tumors from their spine
- Patients with scoliosis, a severe curvature of the spine
- Patients with a condition called “degenerative spondylolisthesis“
- Patients with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the space between the vertebrae that leads to increased pressure on the spinal cord and nerves
What do disc fusion patients typically get in pain reduction and mobility?
Middle-aged patients (average age 42) who undergo lower lumbar surgery tend to do well; 90 percent got substantially better and 75 percent had almost no pain.
More elderly patients also respond well to lumbar fusion surgery. About 70 percent report less pain, increased mobility and greater endurance.
What are the steps in considering spinal fusion?
- Exhaust all other treatment options with your doctor first, such as physical therapy, injections, weight loss, physical fitness, anti-inflammatory medications, etc.
- Seek and get a second opinion.
- Compare the frequency and intensity of pain with the risks of surgery.
- Seek a spine surgeon with a proven track record of success in operations of the type of surgery you require.
- Compare and contrast the pros and cons of open back surgery with minimally invasive surgery.